Call it the father factor. To a remarkable degree, the top-tier presidential hopefuls for 2008, Democrats and Republicans alike, had fathers who played powerful roles in shaping their lives, their values, and even their approaches to politics. Most, in fact, are children of strict authority figures or patriarchs who instilled in their sons and daughters the classic American values of self-discipline, perseverance, and the work ethic. They also taught them not to quit despite adversity. The result is a brood of candidates who are fighting one of the most prolonged, never-say-die nominating contests in history.
"My family had our share of struggles during my childhood," Democrat John Edwards told U.S. News. "But my father never lost faith. It's a lesson that has served me well during challenging times in my life." Republican John McCain had a similar observation. "My father imbued me with [devotion to] duty, honor, country," McCain said. "He literally devoted his life to service in the Navy.... For a long time I lived under my father's shadow."
Republican Mitt Romney's dad served as governor of Michigan and ran for president in 1968. One benefit of his experience was a series of practical lessons. "He said, 'Don't get involved in politics until your kids are raised and you have become financially independent,'" Romney told U.S. News last week. George Romney also had a favorite saying: "There is nothing as vulnerable as entrenched success"—a warning against complacency that his son now applies to all aspects of his campaign.
Democrat Barack Obama's story is different: His father left the family when "Barry" was 2. "The most profound lesson I got from my father," Obama said in an interview, "was to try to be a good father myself. I saw the effect of his absence not only on me but on my siblings."
Most of the candidates seem to have spent much of their lives trying to live up to their dads' expectations or redeem their earlier struggles. To understand their character and the way they would govern, there is no better place to look than at what they learned from their fathers.
Aside from George W. Bush and John Quincy Adams, who followed their fathers into the White House, few candidates in U.S. history have had such a close family connection with politics as Willard "Mitt" Romney. His father, George, was popular as governor of Michigan in the '60s and ran for president unsuccessfully in 1968. One need only glance at photos of father and son, both with chiseled features and clean-cut good looks, to see the bloodline.
George taught his four children to always "make good choices" based on the simple virtues of honesty, humility, and commitment to family. But he also instilled in Mitt a desire to take the lead and aim for the top in whatever he did; George was president of American Motors before he ran for governor.
Romney said one of the things he learned from his father was a devotion to the Mormon faith, which he described in a speech in Texas last week. George, like any good Mormon patriarch, forbade profanity and would not allow the drinking of alcohol, tea, or coffee. He required his children to attend church every Sunday and take turns leading the nightly prayer over dinner. Although the family was affluent, he assigned extensive chores to his children. That included hours of yardwork on summer weekends.
Some conservative Christians consider Mormonism a cult, and the question of faith has emerged as a serious obstacle to a Romney presidency for Mitt in a way that it never did with his father. In an interview with U.S. News, Romney said he wasn't sure why that was, but he sees all the attention as providing an opportunity to describe his broader views on religion's role in America. Last week, he explained that his faith is based on common values of family and "a commitment to Christian principles that are shared by most Americans."
Mitt did learn some important lessons from his father about how not to run for president. In one of the most embarrassing moments in political history, George Romney dropped out after admitting that the military brass and the State Department had "brainwashed" him into supporting the Vietnam War, a position he then recanted, opening himself to charges of flip-flopping.
It is that same charge that plagues the son now as he tries to explain his shift regarding abortion and gay rights, on both of which he has moved to the right. His critics say he did it out of opportunism, to curry favor with Republican conservatives. Like his father in dealing with Vietnam, Mitt Romney says it was a genuine change of heart.